It’s likely that we’ve never seen a March wildfire like the beast that just ripped through Kansas and Oklahoma over the past day. But in a world that’s now exploring a new peak temperature range near or above 1.5 C warmer than pre-industrial averages, a level of heat not seen in the past 110,000 years, we’d be out of our minds to expect the weather and climate conditions to behave in any kind of manner that could be considered normal.
We’re Probably Looking at the Worst Wildfire on Record for Kansas and Oklahoma
(Massive, unprecedented, wildfire burns along a 40 mile swath across Kansas and Oklahoma on Wednesday. Image source: NASA/MODIS.)
And abnormal absolutely describes what happened in Oklahoma and Kansas yesterday and today.
The first sign of trouble was a warning of severe fire risk by weather officials for a multi-state region of the Central US on Wednesday. Extremely dry southwest winds gusting to 60 miles per hour coupled with anomalous temperature readings in the 80s (F) — or about 25 degrees (F) above average for this time of year — spiked fire hazards across a broad swath stretching from New Mexico and Western Texas on into Oklahoma and Kansas. The abnormal heat and dry winds combined to spark one of the worst grass fires on record.
The fire began in Northern Oklahoma at around 5:45 PM and almost immediately leapt northward — following the wind along a 1-2 mile wide swath through the northern portions of the state before roaring across the border into Kansas. It swelled to massive size — spewing out a plume of debris so large that doppler weather radar stations began picking it up. The large cloud, filled with tinders, dropped burning fragments over towns as far as 85 miles away from the blaze. People as far away as Arkansas reported smelling smoke.
During the height of the fire, the City of Medicine Lodge found itself facing an encroaching wall of flame on three sides. The nearby Route 160 had been cut off by the fire and as many as 2,000 structures, including the local hospital, were in danger of being consumed by the flames. Two homes burned, two bridges were destroyed and thousands were urged to evacuate as government officials declared a state of emergency. The American Red Cross scrambled to set up disaster shelters for evacuees.
(Anderson Creek wildfire’s enormous footprint is likely to grow larger over the coming day before the massive fire is finally contained. For reference, 212,000 acres is about 300 square miles. Note that by early afternoon the size of the blaze had jumped to 400,000 acres or more than 600 square miles. Image source: KOCO.)
As of this morning, 800-1000 structures in Medicine Lodge remained under threat. But the fire appeared to have mostly swept around the city. An overnight shift in the wind had caused the blaze to balloon eastward. And, according to the most recent reports, more than 400,000 acres, or about 600 square miles, had burned along a 40 mile swath stretching through Kansas and Oklahoma by early afternoon Thursday.
Conditions in Context
For a single fire to burn so much land in just a single day is absolutely unprecedented for this region. By comparison, the fire season of 2014 was considered to be the worst on record for Kansas — but it took nearly 4,000 fires to burn 110,000 acres during March of that year and here we have a single fire that has now exceeded that record total.
Under the conditions of human-forced climate change, wildfire risk is amplified due to a number of factors. First, overall increased temperatures result in periods of greater and greater fire risk. In addition, the added heat increases rates of moisture loss, facilitating drought, flash drought, and brief periods of intense dryness. Plants, which have adapted over tens of thousands of years to manage an expected range of moisture levels, are unable to compensate for the increased heat and dryness and become more vulnerable to burning.
(Anomalous heat and dry wind events, like the unseasonable warmth over Oklahoma and Kansas that pushed March temperatures into the mid 80s [F] over Oklahoma and Kansas yesterday become more prevalent as human greenhouse gas emissions force the world to warm. These conditions are a trigger for increasingly severe wildfire events. Earth Nullschool GFS capture at 2100 UTC on March 23, 2016.)
Furthermore, increased prevalence of drought and thawing lands — such a permafrost thaw — provide an increasing volume of fuels to feed the fires that do ignite. Fires under such conditions tend to burn hotter — generating far more destructive and potentially rapidly expanding blazes than the tamer variety of fires both human beings and the lands they inhabit are used to. This is a story that could well be told the world over — from the Arctic to the tropics, to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the tip of South America.
Pretty much everywhere, increased global heat — now peaking in the range of 1.5 C above preindustrial temperatures — worsens wildfire risk. And it’s just one of the many, many negative impacts of rising global temperatures. But for Kansas and Oklahoma the massive plume of smoke painting the sky in shades of brown, gray and black may as well have spelled out the words — climate change.
UPDATE 2:40 PM Friday — Renewed Fire Hazard
By Friday afternoon, official tallies for total acres burned had remained at near 400,000 acres in Kansas and Oklahoma and included another 50,000 acres in Texas — or about 700 square miles over the three states. New damage estimates included the loss of hundreds and perhaps thousands of cattle along with many hundreds of miles of fence line.
Reports from the Weather Channel, from GFS model summaries, and from local observations indicated strong southerly winds re-emerging over the region and gusting up to 40 mph. Fire officials have indicated that the new strong winds and rising temperatures into the upper seventies (F) coupled with another slot of dry air could re-ignite smoldering flames in the large fire zone. As such, risks for continued burning and expansion of existing fires was on the rise by mid Friday afternoon.
Hat tip to DT Lange
Hat tip to Kevin Jones